INTRODUCTION: The flight to Zhuhai
In the fall of 2006, not long after I arrived in China, I was the copilot on a small-airplane journey from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province near the center of the country, to Zhuhai, a tropical settlement on the far southern coast just west of Hong Kong.
The plane was a sleek-looking, four-seat, propeller-driven model called the Cirrus SR22, manufactured by a then wildly successful start-up company in Duluth, Minnesota, called Cirrus Design. Through the previous five years, the SR22 had been a worldwide commercial and technological phenomenon, displacing familiar names like Cessna and Piper to become the best-selling small airplane of its type anywhere. Part of its appeal was its built-in "ballistic parachute," a unique safety device capable of lowering the entire airplane safely to the ground in case of disaster. The first successful "save" by this system in a Cirrus occurred in the fall of 2002, when a pilot took off from a small airport near Dallas in a Cirrus that had just been in for maintenance. A few minutes after takeoff, an aileron flopped loosely from one of the wings; investigators later determined that it had not been correctly reattached after maintenance. This made the plane impossible to control and in other circumstances would probably have led to a fatal crash. Instead the pilot pulled the handle to deploy the parachute, came down near a golf—course fairway, and walked away unharmed. The plane itself was repaired and later flown around the country by Cirrus as a promotional device for its safety systems.
On the tarmac in Changsha, on a Sunday evening as darkness fell, I sat in the Cirrus's right-hand front seat, traditionally the place for the copilot — or the flight instructor, during training flights. In the left-hand seat, usually the place for the pilot-in-command, sat Peter Claeys, a Belgian citizen and linguistic whiz whose job, from his sales base in Shanghai, was to persuade newly flush Chinese business tycoons that they should spend half a million U.S. dollars or more to buy a Cirrus plane of their own — even though there was as yet virtually no place in China where they would be allowed to fly it. I was there as a friend of Claeys's and because I was practically the only other person within a thousand miles who had experience as a pilot of the Cirrus. In one of the backseats was Walter Wang, a Chinese business journalist who, even more than Claeys and me, was happily innocent of the risks we were about to take.
We were headed to Zhuhai because every two years, in November, the vast military-scale runway and ramp areas of Zhuhai's Sanzao Airport become crammed with aircraft large and small that have flown in from around the world for the Zhuhai International Air Show, an Asian equivalent of the Paris Air Show. Zhuhai's main runway, commissioned by grand-thinking local officials without the blessing of the central government in Beijing, is more than 13,000 feet long — longer than any at Heathrow or LAX. The rest of the facilities are on a similar scale, -and during most of the year sit practically vacant. As long-term punishment by the Beijing authorities for the local government's ambitious overreach, the airport has been (as a local manager told me ruefully on a visit in 2011) "kept out of the aviation economy" that has brought booms to the surrounding airports in Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.
But briefly every two years, every bit of its space is called into play. So many planes are present there's barely room to maneuver. Because nearly all of the twenty-first century's growth in the world's aviation market has been and is expected to be in Asia, with most of that in China, Zhuhai has become more and more important as the place for aerospace merchants and customers to meet. Boeing has booths there, and so does Airbus, and so do Russian and Brazilian and Israeli suppliers — the Russians and Brazilians and others with squads of "booth babes" — plus American and European architecture firms hoping to design the environmentally friendly new Chinese airports of the future, plus every military contractor from every part of the globe trying to sell fighters or attack helicopters to governments with extra cash. The plane we sat in was the only demonstration model of the Cirrus then available in China, and Claeys was the company's only salesman and company pilot anywhere nearby. If he and the plane didn't get there by that Sunday evening, he would be embarrassingly absent for the next day's demo flights, sales talks, and other events he had been lining up for months.
So Claeys was making the trip because he had to, and Walter Wang because he wanted a ride to Zhuhai to cover the show. I was there to help as Claeys's copilot. At the time I imagined that this would be the first of many small-plane trips I would be making in China.
After all, China would seem to be a country made for travel by air. Like Australia, like Brazil, like Russia or Canada or most of the United States away from the urban Northeast, it is characterized by vast distances; widely separated population centers; mountains and gorges and other barriers separating the cities and making land travel slow and difficult — plus dramatic, interesting scenery to view from above. China's commercial-airline business, starting from a very limited base, was already booming, with nearly twice as many people flying on airlines in 2006 as five years earlier, and twice as many again by 2011.
With the surge of private wealth and the rise of industrial centers at far-flung points across the country, "general aviation" would seem a natural candidate for development. This category includes every sort of non-airline activity, from corporate jets for China's scores of new billionaires and thousands of rising millionaires to crop-dusting activities in its farmlands to search-and-rescue operations after disasters or last-minute organ-transplant flights to purely recreational flight. You could take China's relatively limited numbers of airplanes, airports, and overall aviation activities as a sign of backwardness — or, as was the case in so many other aspects of modern China, as an indication of a gap that could be quickly closed with a huge spurt of construction, investment, and capital outlay.
The many countries of China
Now a word about the territory we would see from above. The main surprise of living in China, as opposed to reading or hearing about it, is how much it is a loose assemblage of organizations and aspects and subcultures, an infinity of self-enclosed activities, rather than a "country" in the normal sense. The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are. Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China's variations are of a scale demanding special note.
What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skillful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly shortsighted.
Of course there are exceptional moments when the disparate elements of China seem to function as a coherent whole. Over a six-month period in 2008, the entire country seemed to be absorbed by a succession of dramatic political and natural events. First, the pre-Olympic torch relay began its ceremonial progression from Mount Olympus in Greece to Beijing and was the cause of nationwide celebration. ("Happiness Abounds as Country Cheers," read a banner headline in the China Daily.) The mood shifted abruptly when the relay was disrupted by Tibetan-rights protestors across Europe, to the widespread astonishment, horror, and, soon, fury of people in mainland China — where the accepted version of Tibetan history is that the territory has always been part of the Chinese nation, and that the people of Tibet should be grateful for Mao's having rescued them from the feudal tyranny of the lamas. Then, on May 12, 2008, everything else vanished from the Chinese media when a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province and at least eighty thousand mostly poor people were killed. Three months after that, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games seemed to command attention in every part of the country and again marked a shift of national mood.
During periods like these, it can seem sensible to talk about a single cohesive-minded "China." And when acting on the international stage, or when imposing some internal political rules, the central government can operate as a coordinated entity. But most of the time, visitors — and Chinese people too — see vividly and exclusively the little patch of "China" that is in front of them, with only a guess as to how representative it might be of happenings anywhere else. You can develop a feel for a city, a company, a party boss, an opportunity, a problem — and then see its opposite as soon as you go to another town.
Such observations may sound banal — China, land of contrasts! — but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckoning with China and its rise. A constant awareness of the variety and contradictions within China does not mean suspending critical judgments or failing to observe trends that prevail in most of the country most of the time. For instance, it really is true that for most Chinese families, life is both richer and freer than it was in the 1980s, and is immeasurably better on both counts than it was in the 1960s. It is also true that in most of the country, air and water pollution are so dire as to constitute not simply a major threat to public health but also a serious impediment to China's continued prospects for economic growth. So some overall statements about "China" and "the Chinese" are fair. But because of the country's scale, because of the linguistic and cultural barriers that can make it seem inaccessible, and because of the Chinese government's efforts to project the image of a seamlessly unified nation, outsiders are tempted to overlook the rifts, variation, and chaos, and talk about Chinese activities as if they were one coordinated whole. Therefore it is worth building in reminders of how many varied and often conflicting Chinas there really are.
Outsiders have learned to stretch their mental boundaries when it comes to considering China's "scale" in one sense of that term: its billion-plus population, its numerous cities the size of Paris, its collective appetite for commodities and products of all sorts, its influence on the world's markets and environment. The military analyst Thomas P. M. Barnett has come up with a vivid thought experiment to help outsiders envision the advantages and challenges that come from China's huge human scope: The United States and China have about the same geographic area, although China's mountainous and desert expanses mean that it has significantly less arable land. But China's population is about four times larger than America's. To match the challenge of human scale that confronts China, the United States would have to bring in every person from Mexico, more than 110 million in all, plus the 200 million people in Brazil. Then it would also need the entire population of Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean nations, plus Canada, Colombia, and every other country in North and South America. After doing all that, it would be up to around one billion people. If it then also added the entire population of Nigeria, some 155 million, and every person from the hyper-crowded islands of Japan, 125 million more, it would have as many people as China — almost.
Feeding, governing, housing, and employing these vast numbers within the borders of the existing fifty U.S. states would be an almost unimaginable challenge, especially while preserving anything resembling open space or wilderness. At the same time, all this humanity would mean that the resulting superstate could draw on much greater reserves of talent in every field — scientific, athletic, artistic and musical, entrepreneurial, civic. Think of running for President in these circumstances. Think of getting into Harvard (as many Chinese students now aspire to do). Those near-unimaginable strengths and the impossibilities of the situation are China's reality now. They explain the aphorism that has stuck with me since I heard it from a government official in Shanghai in 2006. "Outsiders think of everything about China as multiplied by 1.3 billion," he told me. "We have to think of everything as divided by 1.3 billion." Scale in this sense, as an indicator of variety and contradiction, of occasional chaos and frequent difficulty of control, is at least as important as the sheer weight of China's influence on the world.
I have met people for whom "China" is the export factories surrounding Hong Kong and Shenzhen; others for whom it is the Communist Party Schools and centers of related doctrine in Beijing. For many tens of millions in the countryside, "China" is nothing more than the area they can reach by foot from their farmhouses each day. When I spent several days at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 with an Italian friend, we were often the only non-Chinese people within sight among the thousands in a given pavilion, public square, or multi-hour line for admission. The vast majority of other attendees were families from China's second- and third-tier cities for whom a trip through the Saudi Arabian or German pavilion was as close as they were ever likely to come to a view of the outside world. Exhibits that seemed cheesy to sophisticates from Europe, Japan, or North America were much more popular with their target audiences of untraveled Chinese. In this way the Expo served the same function for early twenty-first century China as the St. Louis and Chicago world's fairs had done for wide-eyed inland Americans a hundred years before.
On one of my first reporting trips to Guangdong province in southern China, a foreigner who had lived there for more than a decade and worked daily with Chinese factory owners and laborers said, "Each month I'm here, I know half as much as I did the month before." I thought he was being arch, but a few years later I began to grasp what he was saying. It's not that your store of knowledge keeps going down; it's that your awareness of what you don't know — and won't ever know — keeps going up, and at a faster rate. It's like driving away from the city lights at night and, when lifting your gaze, realizing with shock how many more stars are in the sky than you had previously seen, or imagined. It increases the importance of trying to recognize trends while allowing the possibility of change.
From China Airborne by James Fallows. Copyright 2012 by James Fallows. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.